Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Torture Taxi

Connection With Nevada

According to this Las Vegas TV story, extraordinary rendition aircraft have been spotted in Las Vegas. Human rights activists and foreign governments friendly to the U.S. are outraged because of a suspected kidnapping operation being run by American intelligence agencies.

People have been snatched in broad daylight and then whisked to secret prisons, possibly for torture. The planes used in this controversial operation are often seen in Las Vegas, but the connection goes much deeper.

The I-Team first reported on the so-called "torture taxis" in 2006 and has spotted these planes coming in and out of Las Vegas on several occasions.

The aircraft are owned by shell companies set up by unknown agencies, quite possibly the Central Intelligence Agency. Some of the companies were created in Nevada, using phony names and non-existent persons. So far, Nevada officials don't see it as a problem or a concern.

The images are all too familiar -- prisoners being mistreated, others held indefinitely without charges. Even more damaging to America's image have been allegations of torture carried out at secret prisons by American agents or surrogates.

In a way, the legal justification for the torture program has roots in Nevada, since a Nevada lawyer named Jay Bybee, while working for the Bush administration, wrote the legal brief defending such policies.

It's not hypothetical. Some of the very same planes that have been used in the kidnapping and transport of suspected terrorists to dark, unknown places fly in and out of Las Vegas on a regular basis. The I-Team has recorded their arrivals. However, we cannot say what they're doing here, but are pretty sure what they've been used for elsewhere.

Trevor Paglen, of the University of California, said, "It's indisputable at this point that the United States has been kidnapping people around the world, disappearing them, holding them incommunicado, torturing them. It's beyond dispute."

Trevor Paglen is the co-author of Torture Taxi, a book about the so-called rendition planes and the torture program. The planes in question are owned by private companies with clearance to land at any U.S. military base in the world. Track the planes and you can figure out where the secret prisons are located, often in countries with dismal human rights records.

Such information has outraged European governments. Example: Khaled al-Masri, a German national, was vacationing in Macedonia when he was grabbed by masked men, flown to Afghanistan, and tortured for five months until his captors realized they had the wrong guy. Al-Masri is now suing the U.S. Government, along with a Reno company, Keeler and Tate, which owns the plane suspected of transporting Al-Masri to Kabul.

From all indications, the firm is merely a shell, a false front created by an intelligence agency. The only officer listed is one Tyler Edward Tate, a person who seemingly does not exist. The lawyer who incorporated the company is Steven Petersen, who has declined all requests for comment and whom the I-Team discovered, is hard to find, even at his office.

Petersen's office staff didn't know where he was, how to reach him, or when he might return. The I-Team can't find any record of Tyler Tate other than what's filed with Nevada's Secretary of State. It's a felony to file false information with that office, although no one there seems too concerned. The office has known for more than a year that Keeler and Tate is most likely a phony front. But a deputy told the I-Team there's, quote, "nothing they can do until a formal complaint is filed by someone."

In other parts of the country -- in North Carolina and Portland, Oregon, for example -- the lawyers who have filed papers for other fictitious airlines linked to the torture program are being investigated by the state bar. Not so in Nevada.

On Scott Petersen's door is another name familiar in Nevada -- Laxalt. Peter Laxalt is the brother of former governor and U.S. Senator Paul Laxalt, a well-connected Washington lobbyist. The lobby directory previously listed the Paul Laxalt Group as sharing the same suite with Steven Petersen. But, as soon as calls were made about the connection, the Laxalt name was removed from the directory.

Trevor Paglen said, "We called the D.C. office. The Laxalt Group denied even having an office in Reno. Their name was on the building directly. We called the secretary and they told us there was a West Coast office of the group in that building."

This is not a dead end. European nations have filed formal criminal charges against numerous American intelligence agents. Khaled El-Masri's lawsuit is moving forward and he has the American Civil Liberties Union helping him. At some point, that suit could force some answers about the mysterious Keeler and Tate in Reno. And, investigations are underway in two states into the lawyers who assisted in setting up the phony companies.

One other point, since the I-Team's first report last year about tracking these planes as they fly to Las Vegas, steps have been taken to hide their arrivals and departures.

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